A sportswriter with some novel ideas

Frank Deford is a novelist now - and loving it. Not that he's turned his back on writing about sports, a profession that has earned him many accolades and awards. Some have called him simply the best in the business.

He still contributes occasional articles to Sports Illustrated and does a weekly sports commentary for National Public Radio. But he picks his assignments with care.

"Particularly as I get older, I get tired of chasing athletes around, sitting waiting for Anna Kournikova to give me 15 minutes of her precious time," he told me over a bowl of onion soup at a Boston restaurant last week.

Please don't make me out as a whiner, he adds quickly, considering the success sportswriting has brought him. But "being in a locker room is a terrible thing," especially when you're an out-of-towner who has flown in and now wants players to open up to you. "You really are an intruder.... [The players are] looking at you: 'What are you doing here?' You can sense it.... It's not an easy thing to do," he says.

Sportswriting can also be a challenge because "as a general rule, players aren't very interesting, because they're so young." When Deford finally did talk to tennis star Kournikova, he says, she reminded him of his daughter, not the sex goddess she is made out to be.

Since Kournikova had little to say, his story was about what was going on around her, why she had become a celebrity. He took the same approach in talking with Maurice Green, the world's fastest human, who is a wonderful guy, Deford says, but not a sparkling interview. His story "wasn't so much about Maurice Green, it was about 'speed.' [The] Anna Kournikova [story] was about 'beauty.' "

His seventh and latest novel,

"The Other Adonis: A Novel of Reincarnation" (Sourcebooks Landmark, $24), has nothing to do with sports. Deford got the idea when he saw a Renoir painting of a lovely young lady in a museum during a visit to Moscow and wondered what the story behind it was. "Everybody does that with paintings, I'm sure," he says.

Back home, he tried to turn his musings into a novel, but "I never could make it work until I thought of reincarnation," a subject that had interested him since high school. Eventually, he decided he needed a painting that was hanging in New York City, where he wanted the novel to be set. He found it at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, when he spotted the early 17th-century work "Venus and Adonis," by Peter Paul Reubens.

Though Deford finds reincarnation fascinating, he says he remains a skeptic. "All the people who talk about it are always [being reincarnated as] fascinating characters." They're never, as one of the book's characters says, something dull like "a peasant in Bolivia."

Writing a novel is "more fun" than sportswriting, he says, because you're creating something that has never existed. "When you finish a piece of fiction, you're more satisfied. You made it all up."

Still, his ongoing magazine and radio assignments mean he must keep a constant eye on the sports world. Deford, who lives in Connecticut just outside New York City, has his own theory of what sank the Yankees in the World Series: Fans of their archrivals, the Boston Red Sox, had turned all warm and fuzzy toward the Yankees after Sept. 11 and brought their "Babe Ruth curse" along with them.

It was "all these losers getting on the bandwagon," he suggests with a chuckle.

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